I was talking with Suzanne Pope, creator of Ad Teachings recently, when she asked me if improv is helpful in the workplace.
“Hells yeah!” was my professional answer.
“If you could sum up just one thing it can do,” she said, “what would it be?”
(So much for eight years of training in “Don’t think.”)
The truth is, my mind was teeming with answers. Because really, what doesn’t it help?
Tina Fey explains the core principles brilliantly in her Rules of Improvisation. If all you did was Agree, Say “Yes, And…”, Make Statements, and remember that There Are No Mistakes, you’d be further ahead than 95% of nine-to-fivers. But it doesn’t stop there. Improv can also help you:
Read The Room
Improv teaches you to pay attention to your scene partner. In real life that could be your client, your co-worker, or your boss. (It could also be your spouse, your child, your pusher or your taxidermist, but for now let’s keep it work-related.)
When you walk into a meeting and everyone’s frowning, the client is nervously fidgeting with his phone, or the person across from you is smiling but her eyes are lifeless circles, all of this is valuable information. Information that can and should be weighed before you open your mouth.
I used to go to client meetings thinking only about the work I was there to sell. Now, my focus is the people I’m presenting to.
You may not always make the sale, avoid conflict, or find a solution on the spot, but taking the time to connect with your audience almost always results in a better relationship.
Give And Take Focus
You know those people who never let you get a word in? You get in an occasional “Mmm” or “Huh,” while they never seem to take a breath. Or maybe you know someone who cuts you off, finishes your sentences, or talks over top of you.
What about competitive listening? That’s when someone pretends to pay attention, but they’re really just waiting for an opening to air their opinion.
We’ve all experienced these at one time or another, and a lot of us are guilty of them, too.
Learning to give and take focus is a skill. The more you practise – especially listening, which is more than just hearing and involves your whole body, as well as paying attention to the other person’s body language – the better you’ll communicate.
If you’re reading this on your smartphone while the TV is on and your son is asking you to look at his finger painting, stop. Choose one thing to focus on and give it your full attention.
When you’re not fully present…well…allow me to share a recent interaction:
Me: (looking at iPhone) (groan) I just realized I did something that I had already done.
Cameron: Well, I guess it’s really done now.
Me: (looking up from phone) What’s done?
When you’re present to your choices, it’s incredibly powerful. For you, and your audience – whether you’re on stage, in a boardroom, or sitting across from your loved one.
Try fully committing to your next handshake, hug, or crappy little low-budget, nobody-cares-about-it-so-no-one’s-paying-attention project, and see what happens.
I’ve seen countless ideas whittled away by committees, in brainstorming sessions, new business pitches, and creative presentations.
One person throws out an idea. Someone else says “I like it.” Heads start nodding as people become excited about the possibilities. Then the overthinking begins.
“Why is the dress yellow?”
“That bowl doesn’t celebrate the cereal.”
“How long is the logo on screen? We always super our logo right off the top.”
“I read some research that said people don’t like humour.”
“A Jack Russell terrier is a gay man’s dog.”
“I think these scripts are lame.”
*(All of those comments are actual feedback I’ve heard over the years.)
There’s a big difference between collaborating as a team and nay-saying a concept into the ground before it’s even had a chance to live.
Not every idea is gold. But 9 times out of 10, when something gets pecked to death, it’s coming from a place of fear. Which leads me to my last and favourite reason to take improv.
A lot of us don’t take risks because we’re afraid of failure. But when you realise there are no failures, only learning, it becomes a lot easier to try things. The more risks you take, big and small, the more experience – and experiences – you have to draw from.
Unfortunately, many businesses are risk averse. They’d rather do things the way they’ve always been done than risk possible failure by trying something new. But the truth is, change is constant. And those who embrace change are far more likely to stay relevant than those who cling to the past. (Kodak, anyone?)
Yes, change is scary. But as a wise man once said, “Shit happens.”
Companies evolve. People come and go. What was hot last year (or last week, or this morning) is already passé.
Improv teaches you to respond to whatever is happening, and be cool with it. The next time you find yourself fretting about a meeting, a project, or a new business pitch, just remember the words of Second City alumnus, Stephen Colbert:
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